Robots, balloon-o-grams, lawnmower accidents, The Wiggly Worm Woman-they’ve seen it all. Just in time for one of the biggest TV markets of the year, veteran development execs relive painful memories of some of the worst pitches they’ve ever heard-or delivered. They share their war stories in the vain hope that they may never have to endure the likes of them again…
Cannibalistic brains: they’re ‘really cool’
VP of creative affairs
Los Angeles, California
Thinking back, the strangest and possibly the worst pitch I ever took was on a property with the dubious title of The Brainoids.
It was in my first year as a network executive for ABC Children’s Entertainment, and the president at the time thought it would be best if I took as many pitches as possible to get a feel for the industry. It didn’t matter who called, I took the pitch. So, after several weeks and nearly a hundred pitches, my attention and my patience were wearing thin. I’d seen everything from Rappin’ Robot Teachers to a series on Mother Nature pitched by a woman painted green. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, in walked the Brainoids.
The two men who presented The Brainoids were new to the industry and to the whole process of pitching. Their only presentation material was a maquette of a giant brain with arms and legs, carrying a spear. For a moment I was dumbfounded by what had been placed before me. But then I slipped into true executive mode and asked about the characters, motivation, backstory and target demographic for the series. Unfortunately, they replied that they hadn’t really given any thought to the characters and story, all they knew was that the Brainoids were cannibalistic brains and that they looked ‘really cool.’
That was it. No conflicts, no arc, no pets, nothing. Like I said before, I was tired. I went off on a three-minute tirade (twice as long as the actual pitch) explaining that they should not waste the network’s time with half thoughts and incomplete ideas. Dejected, they began to leave, but not before I gave my only piece of constructive criticism: If they ever use this maquette again, I advised, they should add eyes and a mouth so that their principal character can emote properly.
Leave the performance art at home…
VP of development
Los Angeles, California
I’ve taken some pretty crazy and some pretty bad pitches. The worst are from people who just walk in and don’t know who they’re pitching to, don’t know who Nickelodeon’s audience is and don’t know what Nickelodeon’s attitude is.
Specifically, I remember once taking a pitch from a woman who was a friend of a friend, one of those things that you kind of have to do. It was a pitch for a kids exercise show, and if I remember correctly, she called herself The Wiggly Worm Woman.
She came in all decked out in spandex with a hood thing-she looked like a luge racer. She proceeded to take out a boom box and play some music, and in front of me, in my office, performed a choreographed routine while I sat dumbfounded in my chair.
When I explained to her that exercise shows are not really something that we’re concentrating on right now, she wouldn’t leave my office. Instead, she encouraged me to get out of my chair and join in. I politely thanked her, but firmly declined. It took me a good 45 minutes to finally get it into her head that the show wouldn’t be right for Nickelodeon.
Another one was from a guy who I believe called himself The Conductor Man. He came in wearing overalls and a train conductor’s hat, and he pitched me a weekly hour-long show about making, painting and taking care of model trains. I explained to him that while the train thing could potentially make for an interesting segment in a magazine show, I didn’t think it would make for a solid hour of viewing every week. He had a hard time accepting that.
Nickelodeon prides itself on being creator-driven and staying as edgy as we can. ‘Weird-funny’ would describe the majority of our programming, but it’s amazing just how many of the ideas I hear don’t fall into that group. I’ve seen everything from puppet shows, where creators will actually perform a soft puppet routine right in front of my face, to animators who pull out cocktail napkins and sketch out rough ideas on the spot. Those ideas can be great, but a lot of the time, the ideas are just underdeveloped and all they have is a funny-looking character and no show idea.
Once, for a full week, I got a special delivery every day in anticipation of setting up a meeting with a creator. I got flowers one day, then a singing balloon-o-gram showed up in my office; ultimately a pizza box was delivered containing a message with the guy’s name and phone number. I never took the meeting. I had received ample warning.
Gong show numbers, rampaging robots…triage?
VP of creative affairs
Awful pitch stories? Well, there was the guy pitching who suddenly leaped out of his chair and started tap-dancing and singing (badly). Or the guy who summoned a remote-control, seven-foot dysfunctional robot from the lobby to my office (wreaking Godzilla-like damage en route). Or even the guy who threatened to sue me for passing on his pitch.
But my most memorable pitching disaster involved one of my own pitches.
It was at NATPE. I arrived at our potential client’s stand late and flustered (and I hate being late and flustered) and was hurriedly unpacking an artboard from my portfolio. As I reached in, I felt a little prick on my finger-a paper cut or something-but the adrenaline was pumping and I paid it no attention. I set down the board, and in a gesture of camaraderie to punctuate how happy I was to see her, I affectionately patted the shoulder of the woman with whom we were meeting.
Suddenly, I looked down and realized that my finger was bleeding profusely, and that I had dripped blood all over our potential client’s dress!
Several wet paper towels, one miraculously produced band-aid and endless numbers of apologies later, I made probably the worst pitch in history and decided that the one aspirin per day regimen for preventing heart attacks might possibly be thinning my blood so much as to cause one!
She didn’t really ‘pass’ on the project, though. Rather she fled the floor immediately following the pitch, mumbling something about dry cleaning and an HIV test.
The TIKT principle (Tune Into Kids TV)
Co-founder and CEO
The worst pitch I ever got came during the third season of The Secret World of Alex Mack. The premise of this show is that a teenage girl has been exposed to a mysterious chemical compound that gives her the ability to morph into other shapes.
This writer-a network writer of note who shall remain nameless-came in and pitched a story in which Larisa, who plays Alex Mack, would be accidentally run over by a lawnmower.
‘It’ll be great!’ he said. ‘You’ll see her body going through the lawnmower, and it’ll morph into a thousand pieces-then she can’t put herself back together again! It’ll be like Humpty Dumpty.’
I stared at him in disbelief. ‘Have you ever watched the show?’ I finally managed to ask. ‘Something has to make her morph-it doesn’t just happen. If she gets run over by a lawnmower, we’re going to have my star bleeding all over the screen.’
Needless to say, that was the end of that story. This was back in the days-not so long ago, actually-when people looked at cable TV differently than they do now. Network writers came in and acted as if they were doing us a favor by pitching us a story. Today it’s another world: When someone pitches us on Eddie McDowd, The Jersey or Caitlin’s Way, these people have actually studied the show.
What, no Bruce Willis?
Acquisitions and development
The best example I have is somebody who pitched an animated feature proposal based on a classic property-one of the best known classic children’s books. For each member of the cast, he proposed several alternates to voice the part.
For the female lead, he had Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn or Gwyneth Paltrow. For the male lead, he had Simon Callow or Alan Rickman. For secondary characters, he had Robin Williams and Jack Nicholson-it just continued from there.
At first, we looked at the list and we just said, wow: Joanna Lumley, Angelica Houston, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Jim Carrey, Steve Martin, Robert Redford! Not to mention Eddie Murphy, Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Christopher Walken, Michael Douglas, Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Sylvester Stallone and/or Arnold Schwarzenegger. It had the most incredible voice and character casting I’ve ever seen. The whole pitch was geared around the proposed voice-over cast list, but none of these people had actually been contacted about the project.
The lesson is: Construct a proposal realistically from day one, don’t get over-ambitious, be aware of budget constraints and the availability of the elements, whatever they are.
The runner-up was a show reel from somebody who could put together stop-frame puppets, but couldn’t animate faces, so all of the puppets were faceless. It was full animation on the show reel, and yet the characters themselves weren’t complete. Going through the process of making a whole pilot with dancing, fully-dressed puppets without deciding what your characters’ faces are going to look like is not generally a good idea. It looked very strange.
We look at every proposal that’s sent to us, and we try to keep an open mind. Innovative, creative concepts are our first priority, no matter how the concept is presented. But people have to realize that first impressions do count, and because of the nature of the way that we work, it’s hard to get a second chance if our first impression goes down the negative path.